Change of direction: Oracle cloud strategy puts containers and Kubernetes front and center

Things can quickly change in the enterprise. Oracle, an enterprise giant that has gained a reputation for being the corporate firm clamping down on open source, is now turning to Kubernetes to fulfill its container management needs. This is both surprising and not, at the same time. Surprising because It wasn’t that long ago (about four years) that Larry Ellison, Oracle’s founder and Chief Technologist, called the cloud “the dumbest idea of 2013” and, not surprising, because Kubernetes is the best container orchestration tool out there.

In view of recent multibillion dollar lawsuits against the likes of Google and HPE, it’s almost cheeky for Oracle to decide to “support” Kubernetes, especially since it was launched as an open source project led by Google. With the CNCF and almost every big name behind it already, Kubernetes isn’t the one in need of support. On the surface, this big move from Oracle really comes off as a late and desperate attempt to jump on the Kubernetes bandwagon (with some dignity).

The hunt for AWS

The announcement came on the heels of CoreOS’s decision to bundle Kubernetes into its latest Linux distro, which was announced at the CoreOS Fest in San Francisco. The fact that Oracle is teaming with CoreOS to bring CoreOS Container Linux to Oracle Cloud Infrastructure goes to show that Larry Ellison has come a long way from calling the cloud the dumbest idea. The added declaration that “Amazon’s lead is over” puts him in a group of AWS hunters with the likes of Azure, Google Cloud, and Alibaba cloud, all of which are way ahead of Oracle in the cloud race. The questions here are what exactly brought about this drastic change in attitude toward cloud computing and what makes Oracle think it can play catch up?

The first inkling we had of this “cloud friendly” approach from Oracle was probably the acquisition of StackEngine and the move to position former StackEngine founder and chief technologist Bob Quillion as vice president of the Oracle Container Group. Apart from bridging the gap (a bit) between Oracle and its cloud competitors, the acquisition that took place — for a rumored $1.3 million — was the first major U-turn on Oracle’s part towards the cloud and container technology in general.

Stack your engines

Oracle cloud strategy

StackEngine was originally designed to be a Docker management platform, but isn’t that what Kubernetes does? Not exactly. While Kubernetes is a container scheduling tool, StackEngine takes a more holistic approach to Docker container management by providing visibility into the containers themselves and automating what system administrators have been so far doing by hand. This includes building desired running states for each container in terms of budget, build, security, and services. Another interesting fact is that StackEngine’s original goal was to provide an integrated DevOps solution for end-to-end container application and operations, and if moving to containers is step one toward microservices architecture, DevOps is definitely step two. This acquisition not only gives Oracle an edge with Kubernetes and Docker, it also moves Oracle up the ladder in terms of some real DevOps street cred.

First impressions are hard to change

If you have a “questionable” past with regards to open source, the enterprise certainly doesn’t forget. Charles King, principal analyst for IT analysis firm Pund-IT looks at the StackEngine purchase from another angle. He points out that the decision to buy StackEngine came with the added advantage of taking it off the market for its competitors. This seems to be a major motivational factor for Oracle’s acquisitions, and the last really big purchase of about $7.4 billion was mostly to play spoilsport to IBM’s $7 billion offer to buy Sun Microsystems. While Oracle was really only interested in Java, it felt “forced” to buy the entire company or risk losing it to IBM, which was obviously a nonstarter for Oracle.

Now just to get back on track, we were trying to figure out why Oracle seems optimistic about taking on AWS for the top spot, and StackEngine is just a small part of that story. The rest of it is about “supporting” Kubernetes, acquiring more startups and cozying up to CoreOS. Oracle CEO Mark Hurd claims that 90 percent of enterprise workloads are not yet in the cloud, a point that was often repeated at the conference and a major source of Hurd’s optimism for the future. Yes, if he can convince all Oracle’s current enterprise customers to switch to Oracle cloud, he’d probably give AWS a run for its money, but that’s a lot of convincing to do.

Putting the pieces together

Oracle cloud strategy

Convincing needs to be based on facts, and the fact that Oracle Cloud is the perfect solution for its enterprise customers isn’t necessarily true just yet. On the way to making this true is the added acquisition of Wercker. Wercker is a Dutch startup that specializes in Docker and Kubernetes management tools and had already put a lot of effort into Kubernetes support prior to the acquisition. One of the first fruits of this acquisition is click2cube, a one-click installer for Kubernetes on Oracle Bare Metal Cloud. With two major acquisitions pointing toward Docker, Kubernetes and microservices architecture, the intention to go with Kubernetes was pretty clear. Kubernetes being the No. 1 choice of the enterprise for orchestration, we can definitely see why Oracle would want to be an “insider.”

There’s no doubt that the software giant could actually add a lot to the project in terms of performance and security features suitable for enterprise workloads, but it does come across like a late bet on a winning horse. With regards to convincing legacy enterprise customers to migrate to your cloud, offering them the best open source option isn’t enough. You need to be able to maintain it for them, too. That’s probably where the partnership with CoreOS comes into the picture with services like Tectonic, though challenges will still exist in terms of making this accessible to the broader community. To make sure all bases are covered, Oracle is teaming with CoreOs on a number of levels, including the move to merge its bare-metal cloud offerings with CoreOS and containers. Oracle right now is the only cloud provider offering hypervisor-free bare-metal containers, which is a major selling point for enterprises looking to build cloud native applications.

No gray area in open source

All in all, if we’re to go by all the moves including the acquisitions and the partnership with CoreOS, Oracle has definitely been bitten by the container bug in a big way. The big elephant in the room here, however, is that containers are predominantly based on open source, a community that mostly looks at Oracle like the big bad wolf. It’s not impossible to change an image or a reputation, and a good example is Microsoft. It made the big change from enterprise bad guy to Linux lover and open source supporter fairly recently, and though it hasn’t come cheap, it’s worked out pretty well so far. That’s probably because unlike Oracle, Microsoft is not supporting open source on one side and actively suing companies and using the threat of software audits as a sales tool on the other.

To put it simply, you can’t be for and against open source at the same time, especially if you’re trying to change an image and win some support from a community that’s already looking at you suspiciously. With Oracle’s history of high-profile lawsuits and using legal proceedings to boost its bottom line, enterprise customers are going to be very wary of anything that comes from Oracle unless they change the way they do business. There is promise in Oracle’s efforts to bolster their cloud offerings, but that’s just the start. How Oracle builds on this interesting start will define their place in the race for cloud supremacy.

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